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The Mendicant Vocation of Archbishop Chaput

January 13, 2022 20 min read
By Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia
Msgr. James P. Shea President, University of Mary
The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFMCap, Archbishop Emeritus of Philadelphia, joined Monsignor James Shea, president of the University of Mary, to offer his reflections on his vocation, life as a Franciscan friar and later bishop and archbishop, and the current state of the Church in the United States.


Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): Archbishop, we last spent substantive time together when you were here on our campus and received the Lumen Vitae Medal, and you gave here an extraordinary address on vocations. We had talked about your upcoming retirement at that time, and I wonder how it’s been for you since you’ve stepped down as Archbishop of Philadelphia? I know you’ve been living in Philadelphia since your retirement: how have things been?

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (AChaput): Retirement has been fine! I must say I have very happy memories of my visit to your campus, and ever since I’ve been one of your promoters every time someone tells me that their children or grandchildren are considering which university to attend! It is one of the finest Catholic universities in the country, and I try to promote everything you’re about.

I’ve been a bishop since 1988, and I’ve been retired since 2020. After 31 active years as a bishop, I’m finding retirement very satisfactory. Quite honestly, the thing I like about it the most is that I’m no longer scheduled every moment of every day a year in advance! I have a lot more control over my schedule now and a lot more free time to read. I hadn’t watched much television other than the news in more than 30 years, so I’ve found some very fine series and educational programs and am catching up on my cultural education a bit! I’m really enjoying it.

MShea: As you mentioned, you’ve sort of been in the thick of it in the life of the Church for a long time, and you’ve been able to see the Church move through many decades, and that’s a rich resource for us, so before we get into our discussion, I wonder if you could say a little bit about your own road to Christ and to the priesthood. What were the ways the Holy Spirit was guiding you in your life?

AChaput: I’m a pretty typical vocation from the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in a very good Catholic family. My mother was from a family of eight children and my father was from a family of 13, and both families were practicing Catholics. My parents were very serious about practicing the Faith and passing it on to their children. I saw the example of my parents praying every day, we went to Mass together, and we prayed the Rosary together at home as children. I went to Catholic elementary schools and all the nuns encouraged us to consider being religious sisters or brothers or priests. So I was encouraged to be a priest by the Catholic culture I grew up in. I grew up in Concordia, Kansas, which was a town of about 7,000 people, and the year I went to high school seminary there were five of us entering seminary from that town alone. Only two of those five were ordained, but that’s still a lot of seminarians for a little town in northcentral Kansas.

I went to seminary studying for the Diocese of Salina, but the seminary was taught by Capuchin Franciscan friars in Victoria, Kansas. It wasn’t long after I was there that I decided I really didn’t think I was called to be a diocesan priest but instead thought I was called to join a religious order, so despite the unhappiness of my local bishop, I left the diocese and joined the Capuchins. When I was ordained a bishop years later, the bishop I had from Salina was retired but still alive, and he called me and said, “We got you back!” – because diocesan bishops are diocesan priests. So I went to high school seminary in Kansas, then went to college seminary in western Pennsylvania, novitiate in Annapolis, Maryland, and theological studies in Washington, DC.

For my first six years of priesthood I was stationed in western Pennsylvania, in and around Pittsburgh, teaching in a seminary. Eventually, I became the secretary of the province. In 1977 we separated into two provinces, and I was elected vicar provincial and sent to serve as pastor of a parish in northern Colorado at the same time. After serving as vicar provincial for six years I was elected provincial, and at the end of my term was named Bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota. Part of that was because of my Native American ancestry: I’m a Prairie Band Potawatomi and my reservation is in northeastern Kansas, and the Diocese of Rapid City is a heavily Indian diocese compared to others. There are five reservations in that diocese, so they were looking for a priest who had sympathy with and an understanding of the Indians. After serving as bishop there for nine years, I was transferred by Pope John Paul II to the Archdiocese of Denver after they hosted World Youth Day. After serving in that capacity for 14 years, Pope Benedict XVI named me Archbishop of Philadelphia.

I’ve been very happy: I’ve never doubted my vocation or had a great crisis, and I’m very thankful for the life God has given me in the life of the Church.

MShea: I was tempted in the midst of that to ask you about your attraction to St. Francis. But hearing about your life, it seems like the mendicant life has been for you: you’ve moved all around the country!

AChaput: Moving around the country isn’t the reason I wanted to be a Franciscan, but I certainly have! I think the only reason to join any religious order is either that you’re attracted to their ministry or because you want to be like their founder. I wanted to be like St. Francis, so I joined the Capuchin Franciscans. I had good examples of Franciscan life from the priests who taught at the seminary, but I also wanted to be like St. Francis. That’s why I left the diocese and joined the Franciscans. But as I said, once you become a diocesan bishop you become a priest of that diocese, so I’m a priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia now. The letters “OFMCap” still come after my name, but the reality isn’t there anymore: it’s just a historical memory!

MShea: My first brush with you was on the way to World Youth Day in Denver. I was a high school senior and we gathered here on the campus of the University of Mary for Mass with Bishop Kinney, who was the Bishop of Bismarck at the time, and then we made our way in buses to Spearfish, South Dakota, in your diocese!

AChaput: I remember that! Everyone gathered there.

MShea: We all camped out in the Diocese of Rapid City before moving on to Denver. It was such an epic experience. Of course just a couple of years later you moved to Denver. It strikes me that your three dioceses are incredibly different from one another. Rapid City is a small, rural diocese in the upper Midwest, and it’s heavily Native American and has a lot of ranchers and farmers. Denver is a Western secular and technological city, and it has become a center of Catholic renewal in our country as a result of World Youth Day. Philadelphia is a legacy diocese in the history of our country, which must have given you an amazing sense for the fabric of the Faith in our country. What observations on the life of the Church have you picked up from the various places you’ve served?

AChaput: I’ve loved each diocese I’ve served in, but in a different kind of way. It reminds me of how parents love each of their children in a different kind of way.

I’m a Kansas boy: I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I did grow up in a small, rural community. I also have a great love for the Native American people. So I always felt very comfortable in the Diocese of Rapid City. I’m more alike to Rapid City than I am the other dioceses I served in.

It was a great privilege to serve in Denver. I went there two years after World Youth Day, when Archbishop Stafford was transferred to Rome. Denver was – and maybe still is – the city of apostolic renewal for the United States. So many ministries have developed there and become contagious in terms of evangelistic zeal. It is a booming, energetic, alive diocese, and it was a wonderful experience for me.

I was sent to Philadelphia because of a handful of problems that existed here. More than 20 priests were removed from ministry due to sexual abuse and there were some serious financial problems. We were very overbuilt in relation to the current reality of the Church: I had to close more than 50 parishes and schools in my first couple of years here. So I came from a growing church to a church that needed resizing due to a decrease in practice.

So each diocese has been different, and I’ve loved them in different kinds of ways. Rapid City was the most like my temperament, Denver was the most exciting, and Philadelphia was the most difficult – but all of them have been a joy to me!

MShea: I hesitate then to dwell on that difficulty, but I’m interested in the wisdom that has come to you along the way regarding the reorganization that was necessary in Philadelphia. You mentioned that some of the problems arose from the fact that it was overbuilt for the current needs of the Church, being built in a different era. What does that tell us about some of the challenges that bishops and diocesan administrators face given the rapid change of society all around us? What lessons can be applied broadly from what you were able to do in Philadelphia?

AChaput: One of the things I’ve found interesting is that in over 32 years as a member of the bishops’ conference, seldom have we talked about how much the Church has changed. Most bishops are coming out of an experience of the Church like the one I described in my own life, where there was a kind of friendly relationship between the culture and the Church and everybody thought the Church was going to continue to grow in numbers and fruitfulness. So a lot of bishops don’t want to energetically or realistically face the fact that the Church is getting smaller and that we don’t have the kind of cultural influence we used to have. I think a lot of bishops are waiting for something to happen without engaging in the process of trying to meet those challenges in a direct way. The reason isn’t that bishops are afraid or lazy or anything like that, but that so many people don’t want to change, bishops and laity alike. The hardest thing in my experience here in Philadelphia was closing parishes – and even harder was closing schools in particular. Quite honestly, people are often more attached to their places than they are to the Lord Jesus and the Faith. They’re believers, but they’re believers in a particular place and in a particular style: I think that even young men who join the seminary are sometimes joining with the hope that the life of the Church is going to be like it was in the past – but it’s not going to be like it was in the past. We don’t know what it’s going to look like, but it’s going to be different. The number of priests who belong to my generation is significant, and we’re all retiring. There are a lot of priests who are still working in their 70s, and when they become incapable of working anymore and there aren’t enough priests to staff all the parishes we have, we will have to become a different kind of Church. That’s not something to be afraid of: in the earliest life of the Church there weren’t institutions or parishes as we understand them today, and people celebrated the Faith in house churches. This period of transition can be a wonderful experience of the Faith if we have enough creativity and aren’t afraid to embrace the challenges God is giving us. I think some of us – especially young people like yourself, Monsignor – who have the care and leadership of institutions like a university can be wonderful instruments for helping the Church to prepare herself for a new kind of existence in a very different world. America is changing, and it’s important for us to be women and men of faith in a realistic way.

A field of wheat

Vocation and the Purpose of Our Lives

Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput

Each human life is unique and unrepeatable, possessing a meaning and vocation meant only for you: a vocation is a calling from God with our name on it.

Vocation and the Purpose of Our Lives

MShea: You’ve actually begun to address my next question a bit and have shared quite a bit of wisdom already, but I want to evoke a little bit of that latent St. Francis deep down without you. What’s so breathtaking about him is that he was a troubadour of hope during a difficult time in the Church. Whenever I’ve heard you speak, I’ve been struck by how you’re both deeply rooted in true Christian hope and trust in the Holy Spirit and also realistic in that you aren’t putting forth a Pollyannaish or falsely-optimistic vision of things. Within that lens, what signs of hope do you see around us in the Church and in the culture?

AChaput: The two most important influences in my spiritual life were the faith community of my childhood, which includes my family, and my Capuchin vocation. I was formed more by the Capuchins than by anything else, and like we said earlier, the reason one becomes a Franciscan is that one wants to be like St. Francis. And when we look at St. Francis, even though he insisted upon poverty, poverty wasn’t his primary identity. His primary identity was trusting a providential Father, and that’s why he wanted the friars to be poor: poverty helped them to trust in God rather than themselves. So understanding that God is a providential Father who cares for us means that we are willing to risk everything. It means that we have a God who is a Father that won’t let us down, and that there’s no reason for us to be afraid even when the world around us looks very threatening. As Jesus told us, God is a Father who gives bread – not scorpions – to his children. That’s the reason for my hope.

St. Francis was quite upset with his brothers at times when they weren’t faithful to his ideals, and he lived in a very difficult time in the life of the Church; in fact, it was more difficult than our own time. But he was a person of hope simply because he trusted in God’s providential care. If God is your Father, then everybody is your sister or brother, and St. Francis wanted to be a little brother to everyone. So trust in the Father formed Francis completely in his relationship with other people, and perhaps if everyone just became a Franciscan and trusted God like Francis our world would be a very different place! We wouldn’t see a false separation between the laity and the clergy, because we would recognize that we’re all sons and daughters of God, even if we have different tasks. Priests are different by their ordination, but it’s a difference in service and responsibility to the Church and not a difference in the importance of the person! An archbishop is no more important than the youngest Catholic in the smallest parish of a small diocese.

MShea: Could we pause there to talk about the role of the laity? When you last visited our campus you gave a magnificent address on the topic of vocations, and before that address you said a word about how the laity is meant to be co-responsible.

AChaput: I was referencing Pope Benedict XVI, who said that we need to get over seeing the Church as the laity working for the bishops or the clergy in general, because all of us are responsible for the Church by our baptism. So the laity are also called to be evangelists: we are co-responsible for the Church. Sometimes people talk like priests and religious brothers and sisters are the evangelizers and the laity simply exist to help them in that role, as if no evangelization would get done if there weren’t any priests and religious brothers and sisters. But that’s nonsense. If you look at Acts of the Apostles – which offers a pattern of the life of the Church for all time – the evangelists were mostly laity. Priscilla and Aquila were tentmakers, but they were also partners of St. Paul in preaching the Gospel. So while you have a unique role as a priest and university president, Monsignor, all the baptized Christians you’re forming have a co-responsibility for the Church: not just for themselves, not just for their families, but for the Church. Evangelization is a responsibility that’s on all our shoulders.

MShea: One of the great responsibilities of the laity is their calling as citizens. You’ve written and spoken a lot about the relationship between Church and State and what it means to be both a Christian disciple and a citizen. I know this is a big question, but could you speak to your vision for how we can be both disciples and citizens?

AChaput: That is a big question, and there are many different approaches to it in today’s Church. There are some who are saying that our focus should be on withdrawing and forming stronger local Catholic communities to support one another. I’m certainly not against that. We’ve always done that in the Church. When we go on a retreat, we withdraw. Sending kids to Catholic schools was initially about withdrawing them from the public school system that was often opposed to Catholicism. In the face of that opposition, parents built this huge educational system in the United States as a way of protecting their children from the culture. Withdrawing has been a part of the pattern of Christian life from the very beginning.

But if withdrawing means turning society entirely over to nonbelievers, we are risking a whole lot. I’m convinced that the United States couldn’t exist if it weren’t for the good news of the Gospel. Our nation is built upon Judeo-Christian principles and if we lose those principles, we will lose our country. Our country doesn’t have much to unify it: we don’t have a common language and we don’t come from a common culture, but what keeps us united is a commitment to the Constitution, and the Constitution arose from a commitment to Judeo-Christian principles, regardless of whether we call them that. But we should call them that because we should recognize where they came from.

I really do believe that we have a duty to the culture in which we live. In the Letter to Diognetus, which is a second-century text in the Divine Office late in the Easter season each year, the author refers to Christians as the soul of society, just as the soul gives life to the body. And in that time, Christians were a persecuted minority. So as Christians today, we still need to think like that. We need Catholics to run for office. We need Catholics to vote. The risk, of course, is Catholics becoming more attached to their political party than they are to the Faith: President Biden, for example, has given up many Catholic teachings. Republicans aren’t the embodiment of perfect virtue in all this, either! It’s important for Catholics to understand that political parties are never going to be our friends in the fullest sense of the word. Parties want power, they want to win elections – they are willing to change to attain their goals.

It’s important for us to be active in political efforts and even in political parties, but God must come first and our Christian faith must be the animating force of our political commitments. The platform of a political party cannot be the animating force because they’re all doomed to failure. Getting involved in politics always brings risks. I don’t know if it’s a majority of Catholic politicians who aren’t actually very Catholic, but the number is certainly significant. And if the loss of Catholic identity can happen to them, it can happen to any of us when we run for office. We are always tempted to give up the truth to be popular or to get elected. I wrote a book on this question, Render Unto Caesar. I wrote it in response to a friend of mine who ran in a primary in the Democratic party and lost because he is pro-life, and he asked me afterward, “What are we going to do?” I don’t know if the book helped him or not, but I wrote it to respond to his question!

MShea: As a university president, I’ve been entrusted with the care and service of an awful lot of young people. Our students are vibrant, they’re high-hearted, they want to love God, they want to serve well, and they’re subject to all the same temptations that all the rest of us living in the world are. I remember when I was a high school chaplain, I had a lot former students who moved to Denver after college because Denver and Minneapolis are places where North Dakota students often end up in their careers. When they would ask me for advice on what they should be doing with their lives, I would always say, “I think Archbishop Chaput says a lot of Masses down at the Cathedral, I think you should go hear him preach.” In your preaching to young adults standing on the doorstep of their lives, what have been some of your main themes?

AChaput: I’m boring because I only have one theme that I preach to young adults! I constantly preach on how important it is for them to find a group of believers and make that community a big part of their life, because it’s difficult to believe by yourself, especially when you’re young. When we get older we don’t care as much about what others think, but when we’re young we care so much about what others think and we’re much more influenced by our friends. I don’t think it’s possible for people to be Christian for very long unless they surround themselves with Christian friends when they’re young. As you know from your work at the university, those sorts of friendships endure for a lifetime. It’s amazing to see these young people I preached to decades ago married with children, but they’re still friends with the friends they made in college and who were their brothers and sisters in Christian community! So I always preach about that: you have to find a small group of believers when you’re at the university, but you also have to find it when you leave the university. It can’t just be a social group where you look for your future husband or wife, but ultimately it has to be a community of people who believe. And you have to marry somebody who will help you get to heaven, because if you don’t they might help you get somewhere else! The Lord has made us in his image and likeness, and in his substance he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loving each other. We’re made in that image. We too were made for community and when we don’t have it, something bad happens to us.

MShea: You’re so generous in spending this time with us, and you’re always so generous with apostolates in the Church in your prayer and support. Do you have any final thoughts for us – words of counsel or encouragement or warning for a rising generation of young, serious-minded Catholics?

AChaput: My final word of counsel would actually be directed at you and your board, Monsignor, along with anyone else who has spiritual or intellectual leadership in Christian institutions. You have to make sure that you have a succession plan in place so that if something happens to you, the mission of the university as embodied by the leadership there now continues. That’s what I worry about all the time. We can have something very good going on until personnel changes occur and then it’s lost. The board is especially important to the continuity of mission at the university. We need people who are board members for mission rather than just for financial reasons or status in the community. When we have board members who are involved for mission, everything works: the university serves its purpose, which is evangelizing and supporting the Catholic identity of students. That’s why parents give money to send their kids to Catholic schools!

MShea: Archbishop, the time has gone quickly! And I’ve so enjoyed the conversation. Thanks so much for your time.

AChaput: Thank you, Monsignor. God bless you and your faculty, staff, and especially the students!

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